Text by Yusuke Minami
Director of Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art
Since 2003, Hiroe Saeki has been producing drawings in a consistent style ranging from small pieces of about 30 centimeters to some as large as three meters to amass a body of some 150 variously sized works. While her early drawings were small (A4 size) and featured a single motif such as a mushroom, butterfly, flower, bird, or hybrid object, they were already clearly imprinted with the characteristics of a style and technique that are still evident today, allowing us to watch the formulation of a defined world of wonder. Gradually, Saeki has adopted a wider range of expressions, and as the motifs have grown more diverse and the structure more complex, she has begun to create large works with three or four connecting pieces. She has also begun to use materials such as colored pencils, acrylic paint, and colored ink. As a result, Saeki’s unique world seems to have evolved into something even more powerful.
I would probably be most accurate to call Saeki’s pictures pencil drawings. As is almost immediately evident, she elaborately applies a series of minute lines to sheets of white Kent paper using pencils or a similar material. In fact, the majority of Saeki’s lines are executed with a mechanical pencil. The 0.5mm type, which she says she has been using since junior high school, produces a line so minute as to be nearly invisible, so Saeki first sharpens the lead with a fine grain of sandpaper.
As has frequently been pointed out, one of the special characteristics of Saeki’s style “blank space.” On a type of Kent paper that might well be described as white paper despite its somewhat creamy tinge, Saeki maintains a lot of empty spaces. These blanks are often perceived as elements of a “Japanese” design style or sense of space (the so-called ma), and this cannot be completely dismissed. However, it is the qualities that are embodied in the “blanks” that seems to be especially significant in Saeki’s drawings. Realizing the quality of sharpness with minute lines of the type that Saeki creates with her thin mechanical pencil would probably be impossible without a very fine-grained, smooth paper with a high degree of thickness like Kent. Yet, the paper also works to imbue the “blanks” with other features. Kent paper, it bears repeating, is primarily used for design work and drafting. The swollen texture of common drawing and painting materials such as washi (Japanese paper), watercolor paper, and charcoal paper, silk, and canvas prevents the viewer from sensing the type of space that is naturally contained within a work. In contrast, the flat. hard quality of Kent paper in conjunction with the figures executed in mechanical pencil makes it appear as if a clash of some kind is underway. Rather than simply leaving the ground of the white paper unadorned. the white, shadowless plane seems to oppose the figure. And in the areas that might be called “blank space,” it seems as if closely packed, electrically charged invisible forms dwell. In fact, only a small fraction of these figures can be summoned up as a form that is visible to the eye. Or at least, this is the impression that the viewer is left with.
As for the figure, the lines that form the shares on the paper only ever seem to graze, blur, dim the surface. That is, they remain on the surface of the plane and never really recede into the background of the space. The lines create a balance with the strong ground of the Kent paper, and the combination of the lines and paper add a sense of reciprocal power.
Though the lines remain on the surface, this is not to say that Saeki’s pictures are flat works lacking in space. Her space, however, neither extends beyond the paper with a Western sense of perspective or functions as the type of space that has existed in modern and contemporary works since the advent of Cubism which seems to jut out from the paper. In the past, in looking at Saeki’s works, I sensed something digital about the spaces. This was indicated by the way the pictures seemed to develop laterally as if they were scrolling downward, and the fact that by treating the whole and the parts of the picture equally. Saeki rendered the details with a sharpness that persisted regardless of how close one got to the work. I now feel as if the relationship between the lines and the white ground is reminiscent of a computer monitor. In other words, Saeki’s lines don’t inhabit the top of the paper, but are rather juxtaposed with its whiteness.
Let’s next examine the type of things Saeki draws. As I mentioned above, her early work was solely devoted to forms that recalled mushrooms, butterflies, flowers, and birds. These were not faithful renderings of actual living things, but were instead fancifully arranged and covered with dotted, dappled, striped, and wave-crest patterns; forms, in order words, devised by the artist. Each picture had only one figure that was positioned slightly above the center to imbue the work with a unique sense of floating. It was fascinating to see things like mushrooms that normally grow out of the ground represented as floating objects that had been cut free from gravity, and the flying creatures, such as butterflies and birds, depicted in such a pleasing way.
There are two aspects to this floating sensation. One is that the object is depicted as a kind of illusion. The figures that Saeki draws seem to share almost nothing with the real world. Like a vision that suddenly appears out of thin air, they lack weight and mass. Saeki actually depicts the dazzling light that fills the sky during an explosion, or a phenomenological event that is in itself an entity but lacks a determined shape. These ephemeral illusions, without firm elements such as gravity, body, or foundation, could be said to represent above all the essential nature of imagery.
One element that is particularly eye-catching then is that of metamorphosis. Among the things Saeki draws are forms that are not remotely connected to flowers, birds, plants or clouds. These have elements of two things, and might be understood as either of the two. In addition, while they seem to occasionally display hints of traditional Japanese flower-and-bird paintings, and elements such as the trunks and branches of ancient trees, and banks of spearlike mist, the objects deviate widely from the original form of these things and often seem to have morphed into some anomalous entity. Or, though smoothing might resemble a clump of poppies or some hanging davallias, when one looks very, very closely at the details, the objects at times seem to change into fractal patterns or crested waves. As this type of transformation can only actually occur somewhere between the image and the imagination, this is an essential element in providing a sense of illusion.
The second aspect that is related to the floating sensation is the design-like nature of the work. The reason Saeki’s forms lack gravity is that they don’t require any foundation on the ground.
That is, the fact that smoothing is there or that its sense of presence can be realized through an artistic rendering has nothing to do with Saeki’s perspective, neither is it of any importance to her. If a figure exists on the ground, that is the foundation and the type of figure that exists there has a design-like quality. Is this perhaps related to Saeki’s having originally majored in visual design at university?
The fact that her work is related to traditional Japanese aesthetics and design should also not be overlooked. This has long been suggested by the fact that Saeki’s work recalls that of Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800) and Kano Sansetsu (1589/90-1651), and the sensation that is created by the “blank space” in the center of the plane where the motif would normally be. In addition, her method of producing large works by connecting three or four sheets of paper together could be seen as similar in effect to screen painting. And just as one sees in Tawaraya Soutatsu (1413-1481) and Ogata Korin (1658-1716), within the traditional Japanese context, the difference between what is designedly and what is painterly is not that great.
Thus, the floating sensation inherent in Saeki’s figures is rooted in a combination of two elements, that of illusion as image and device as design, and these two qualities are linked to the peculiar flatness that is one of the most apparent formal characteristics of Saeki’s work. And as I have already pointed out, even in terms of the work as a physical entity and the production method, this flatness is realized through a highly conscious selection process and a strong emphasis on dimension.
And as I have also mentioned above, with the addition of variation, even in terms of the type and handling of motifs in Saeki’s work, a certain type of whimsy seems to be emerging as an important characteristic, particularly when one surveys her more recent works. Let me just take a moment to enumerate her recent motifs (in no particular order, but as they happen to come into view): There are rings, high heel shoes, broaches, necklaces, monograms, haniwa figures, onigawara (roofing tiles with devil motifs), chandelles, combs, ribbons, handbags, diadems, bracelets, filigrees, cameos. daggers, wooden boxes, wave crests, glasses. scarves, pins, grapes, armchairs, palm trees, hobbyhorses, pears, and mirrors. There has been a noticeable increase in hard objects, lustrous objects, and transparent objects, and more personal accessories for women, but overall there is a variety of elements sharing the space that don’t seem to be part of a coherent context and little regard for size. Are we to imagine that these things have simply been committed to paper as the lead of Saeki’s mechanical pencil summons them up from the depths of her consciousness? In simple terms, this list of motifs betrays not only traces of “whimsy,” but also suggests smoothing “girlish.”
If images really do just “appear”, their source is probably equally rooted in the conscious and unconscious, reason and chaos. In Saeki’s works, a variety of personal motifs abruptly emerge in rapid succession. These are mixed together with chaotic, fractal forms, which unsurprisingly take other shapes before our eyes and might even be seen as the providence of those things we call images. But even if these things have been developed through some deeply conscious choice, one can’t help but be amazed by a mastery that is so well-versed in the nature of the imagery. All that aside, the reason Saeki’s pictures possess a charm that once seen is never forgotten is undoubtedly rerated to the fact that the manifestation of the essence of these images truly wavers between fantasy and reality, imbuing our imagination with a new sense of vitality.
[Translated by Christopher Stephens]